Things you didn’t know about Ancient Egypt
The Egyptians may have reigned over 5,000 years ago, but to this day, they still dazzle our imaginations with their advanced civilization. Perhaps the reason is because discoveries from their ancient world are continuing to be unearthed. Secret chambers in King Tut’s tomb? Catacombs of mummified pets? Long lost statues of a royal family? Or how about a 3,000 year old pregnancy test? To find out more about the ancient Egyptians and how they lived, follow along as we reveal the secrets and tell the history of one of the world’s first and greatest empires.
King Khufu’s Tomb
When it comes to ancient Egypt, there is nothing more famous or iconic than the great pyramids of Giza. The greatest of them all was constructed as the burial site for King Khufu who lived nearly 5,000 years ago. King Khufu lived to be 33 years old between the years of 2589-2566 BC, which is a little longer than how long it took to construct his enormous tomb.
King Khufu’s tomb took over 20 years to build and was actually built using skilled, well-compensated laborers as opposed to slaves. The dimensions of the tomb are absolutely gigantic as it rises 460 feet in the air, and has an area the size of five football fields. There are over two million limestone blocks, and if they were chopped into 12-inch cubes they could wrap around the moon nearly three times.
Women in ancient Egypt weren’t exactly given equal opportunities, but their social status was far superior to most ancient cultures. Women had the ability to buy and own property, which was a big deal when it came to Egyptian marriages. A form of prenuptial agreement enabled women to protect their property in the case that they decided to get a divorce.
When the Greeks discovered ancient Egyptian culture, they encountered many surprises, and one of those includes the fact that wives in Egypt weren’t property to their husbands as they were in Greece. Egyptian women also had the right to serve on jerseys, and though many made their living in the home, those who did work outside of it received equal pay.
The first pyramid built in Egypt was a step pyramid and was designed by the Egyptian genius Imhotep. Imhotep was an architect, a doctor, and government official, and was basically the Aristotle or Da Vinci equivalent of ancient Egypt. The 200-foot-tall structure is the oldest in the world, and its longevity is a testament to the brilliance of his design.
The pyramid at the epicenter of the ancient capital of Memphis has constructed as the tomb for pharaoh Djoser over 4,600 years ago and has endured the test of time. So revered was Imhotep that he was worshiped by future generations as the god of medicine, and further worshiped by the Greeks who put him on par with their own god of medicine Asclepius.
The most well-known queen of ancient Egypt wasn’t even Egyptian at all, and the life of Cleopatra is the stuff of legends. Her bloodline stems from Alexander the Great’s most trusted Lieutenants, Ptolomy (whose descendants ruled Egypt for centuries), and seduced Julius Cesar and became lovers with Marc Anthony. She was the first person in her bloodline to even speak Egyptian, as she descended from Macedonian ancestry.
Not only did Cleopatra speak Egyptian, but historians say she could speak a dozen languages. Her reputation as a temptress notwithstanding was perpetuated by Roman historians, and while she certainly used her sex appeal to allure some of the world’s most powerful men, she was not especially attractive. According to the ancient writer Plutarch, she had an “irresistible charm.”
Egyptian medicine was incredibly advanced for a civilization that reigned in ancient times. So advanced was their understanding of medicine that they used pharmaceuticals to treat disease and engaged in sanitary practices when treating open wounds. Although antiseptics were not invented yet, this would have drastically reduced instances of infection.
The Greek writer Herodotus, who basically invented the academic discipline of history (woot woot!), commented that the Egyptians had doctors for teeth and separate doctors for the eyes and the stomach. This means that the Egyptians recognized the value of having doctors focus on specific parts of the body, enabling them to be better trained and more knowledgeable when treating ailments and injuries.
Even in a far superior technological age that gives us access to games on our phones, board games have managed to endure. Perhaps they’re one of those timeless facts of life, like wine, and the ancient Egyptians loved them so much that King Tutankhamen was buried with his favorite game while Queen Nefertiti has been depicted playing hers in Egyptian paintings like the one below.
The most popular game of all was the board game “Senet,” and it was Nefertiti’s favorite game. Historians still argue the rules to the game, but what we do know is that it involved a board with 30 squares, and each player had pieces that were moved based on rolling dice or throwing sticks. Just about every board game nowadays involves a board (by definition) and dice (not so much “throwing sticks”), which is something that has endured for over 5,500 years.
Pharaoh Pepi II
Although Tutankhamen may be the most popular child king, Pharaoh Pepi II came to power when he was just 6 years old and presided over Egypt for the longest reign in history. His father died when he was young and he succeeded the throne when his older brother became sickly and died. His mother presided over Egypt until he came of age, and then he presided over a very tumultuous time in history.
During Pharaoh Pepi II’s long reign, he did his best to expand his kingdom. Conquests into the region around the Somali coast did not go well for the king, and while foreign wars played out, his power started slipping away at home. Pepi II was largely an ineffective leader, and the fact that he served so long it made it difficult for future rulers to get Egypt back on track.
When we think of the Sahara Desert today, which FYI, is the size of the United States, making it the largest hot desert in the world (Antarctica is considered a desert, thus the largest), we don’t think of lush green grassland and rich savannah hosting a thriving ecosystem that sustained hoards of species of animals, reptiles, insects, and vegetation.
The largest hot desert (over 3,630,000 square miles) started its conversion from fertile land to baron around 10,000 years ago. Perhaps it was overgrazing, like the kind that created the Dust Bowl in 1930s America, or it was the result of the earth’s natural climate change that created the desert. Either way, we know that it was far more sustainable for a civilization 5,000 years ago than it is today.
World’s first known peace treaty
The Egyptians were pioneers on many fronts and it makes sense that they were the first ones to figure out diplomacy at its finest and develop the world’s first peace treaty. The treaty between the Egyptians and the Hittites was such an achievement that a copy of the treaty resides above the entrance to the United Nations Security Council Chamber in New York to this day.
Over 3,00 years ago the Hittites and the Egyptians fought for control of modern-day Syria for the better part of two centuries. One can imagine the heavy toll a war like that would have on civilization and surmise that this commitment left them both vulnerable to attack from a third party. That’s why Ramses II and the Hittite King Hattusili III signed the accord to help each other out if either was attacked.
While it is known that slavery was common practice in ancient Egypt, the job of constructing the massive tributes to Egyptian kings was not something they left to the subjugated. Instead, the building of the pyramids that would house the bodies of pharaohs for all of time was left to skilled artisans and hired labor who performed backbreaking labor to get the job done.
From the analysis conducted on the skeletons of these workers, we can see that they had issues with arthritis and other problems that show the work was anything but easy. Historians also believe that graffiti later discovered in certain pyramids reveal that these laborers formed groups and even gave themselves fun names such as the “Drunkards of Menkaure” and the “Friends of Khufu.”
Metrosexual is a relatively new term in the modern era depicting men who have good taste in fashion and style. In ancient Egypt, the term might’ve applied to just about all men, as both men and women commonly wore makeup. The ancient equivalent of eyeliner was a make-up called “kohl,” and while both men and women wore it, it wasn’t necessarily for any reason related to fashion.
“Kohl” was made from a combination of group-up material and oil. It created a black chalky substance that was spread on the upper and lower eyelids. While this certainly had an attractive effect on both men and women, the kohl was actually used because it was believed that it could help with poor eyesight and would ward off any eye infections. These weren’t scientific conclusions, as the Egyptians believed kohl had magical properties.
No thorough discussion about ancient Egypt would be complete without bringing up arguably the greatest pharaoh that ever lived. Ramses II reigned over 3,000 years ago and is the only pharaoh to have “the great” spoken after his name. Ramses II also very much got around, as he is also said to have had 100 children between his eight wives and nearly 100 concubines.
The 60 years of Ramses II reign saw some of the most iconic statues and building in ancient Egypt constructed, but the Egyptians largely remember him for his military exploits. Case in point is the Battle of Kardesh that almost resulted in a disaster for the Egyptian army, but preserved tactical victory in the process. The most lasting effect that we still hold dear today is the aforementioned peace treaty that came after the battle’s conclusion.
Flat earthers aside, most people in the modern world agree that the earth is round and it takes 365 revolutions before making it completely around the sun. The Egyptians would agree, and even took that fact a step further by dividing the year into 12 months. They also divided the year according to three seasons, which in certain parts of the world is more appropriate than the typical four.
The Egyptians also kept a lunar calendar that was far less accurate than the one based on a solar year. While the lunar calendar didn’t last as long, the names for the months in that calendar made it to the solar calendar. But the solar calendar had one flaw, as it did not contain a leap year day. In 46 BC Julius Cesar added the leap year to the calendar, and that version serves as the basis for the calendars used by the Western world today.
The world’s longest river is also the river that cradled the ancient Egyptians for millennia and has an odd feature that makes it extraordinarily unique. The Nile River, unlike most rivers in the world, runs from south to north, and floods in the summer. Egyptians could never figure out why the river would swell in the summertime, and the reason was only discovered 150 years ago.”
Explorers in East Africa discovered the region where the water came from by discovering the source of the river itself. So important was the flooding of the Nile that the ancient Egyptians kept extremely accurate records of its patterns. Scientists still use this information today as a baseline when trying to understand rainfall patterns.
‘Night of the Teardrop’
If summertime floods weren’t weird enough when it comes to the Nile River, then the same thing happening from tears of an Egyptian god should come as no surprise. In fact, since the Egyptians couldn’t figure out the source of the river, they said that the god Isis shed a single tear for her dead husband Osiris and the tear caused the banks to overflow.
The first flood to kick off the season was known as “Night of the Teardrop.” It wasn’t all bad for Isis though, as she was able to piece Osiris’s body together and bring him back to life. They then had a kid together, which is surprising given the piece of Osiris that Isis couldn’t find. Even so, their son became Horus, which was a god Egyptians believed was personified in their pharaohs.
Throughout this discussion, and any other regarding Egyptian rulers, readers will often find the words “king” and “pharaoh” being used interchangeably. The reason is that the word “pharaoh” was a nickname for an Egyptian “king.” The word “pharaoh” means “great house” because the king’s body harbored a certain living god (we’ll give two guesses to pick that god, but we think you’ll only need one).
Another reason why the words “pharaoh” and “king” were used so interchangeably is that 20 dynasties reigned in ancient Egypt before “pharaoh” became the more popular term. The 20th dynasty wasn’t exactly a good time for the Egyptians, as squabbling amongst heirs led to them battling each other while the empire declined. At least the pharaohs got a much cooler title in the process.
People have been staring at the night sky since there were humans on planet earth and the Egyptians were no different. Ancient Egyptians had an extremely advanced understanding of the patterns of the cosmos, and it wasn’t just for curiosities sake. Not only were the stars mapped for the dead to navigate, but the moon and the coming of night and day were used for several practical purposes.
The Egyptians adopted a sundial to mark the first 24 hours. They devoted 12 hours to daytime and 12 hours to nighttime, which did not vary from season to season. And beyond practicality, King Khufu, for whom the greatest pyramid in Gyza was built, has open vents to allow his soul to escape to the constellation Orion, which resides right over the pyramid.
Ancient Egyptian cities have a striking similarity to modern cities that harbor sports teams: they had a mascot of their favorite god. Some sports teams like the “49ers” and “Cowboys” have mascots that are synonymous to their city and region, and in ancient Egypt, the god they chose to focus on was chosen in the same way.
Any given city’s temple in ancient Egypt would contain odes to their specific gods, and statues that people could interact with. Just like with American football, a city that was successful in a military conquest for example, would have their specific god rise to prominence in the view of the surrounding world.
One thing about ancient Egypt that keeps sparking such imagination is the fact that archaeologists are unearthing new discoveries to this day. In March 2014, archaeologists restored three statues depicting Pharaoh Amenhotep III, who was the grandfather of King Tutankhamen. The statue below is almost 40 feet tall, which is twice as tall as the Jefferson Memorial in Washington DC.
Amenhotep III, seen sitting in the photograph above, is also depicted with his wife at his side. Tiya, was said to be from “humble” beginnings and ruled right alongside her husband. In 2014 authorities placed the 250-ton statue of the two back in its original location in the ancient city of Luxor. Archaeologists also found more statues that had been forgotten for millennia.
Amenhotep III reigned over an unprecedented period of prosperity both in international prestige and culture. When he became pharaoh over 3,500 years ago, he inherited a massive kingdom that was in danger of being overstretched. While his kingdom was preserved during his reign, he didn’t maintain it through military conquest, but by shrewd maneuvering, such as intermarriage with rival heirs.
The statues that were unearthed were located next to Amenhotep III’s funerary temple, which was built sometime around 1,350 BC. The two recently discovered statues above are of Amenhotep III’s devoted wife Tiya, and his loving daughter Iset. Iset’s statue was easy to determine because her name and the title are engraved. Also engraved on the statue is a note that says, “Love of her father.”
Amenhotep III was an extremely popular pharaoh, and that may not be an accident. Amenhotep was the first Egyptian ruler (maybe ever) to engage in massive public image campaigns. News of his vacations, massive public works projects, conquests, and marriages were chiseled on large stone scarab seals and distributed throughout the empire.
The photograph above is not a statue that’s been chiseled over the years, but rather it’s seen incredible damage from irrigation water, salt, earthquakes, and vandalism. It has since been restored to its original form, and the red quartzite statues reassembled after being scattered over the surrounding area. Now, these statues join the two 16-foot tall statues of Amenhotep III’s breathtaking funerary temple.
Not only did the ancient Egyptians have advanced knowledge of the cosmos, but also of the most important celestial objects in the sky. The planets’ constant appearance in the night sky caused the Egyptians to track their patterns and assigned them to different gods. They didn’t know all of the planets, but they recognized the orbits of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter.
Mercury’s god was Set, which is associated with violence and disorder, while Venus was associated with the “god of the morning.” Mars was associated with Horus and already noted for its red color, and Saturn was “the bull of the sky.” Ancient Egyptians had a specific meaning for Jupiter too, which was “Horus who limits the Two Lands” (the “Two Lands” being upper and lower Egypt).
The most well known female ruler in ancient Egypt are decidedly Cleopatra and Nefertiti, but the greatest female leader in ancient Egypt was Pharaoh Hatshepsut. Initially, she took over when her husband died and her son Thutmose III was too young to rule. When he did come of age Hatshepsut had already solidified her position and the two ruled together as kings.
Hatsepshut was mistaken for a king for centuries until 1822, when it was discovered that she was depicted as a man in ancient drawings of her, likely to give her claim to the throne legitimacy. Her reign focused largely on trade and good relations in surrounding areas rather than military conquest. Her abdication was seamless too, as Thutmose III ruled for 33 years after her death.
The Great Sphynx
There’s some discrepancy on who the Great Sphynx was built for, but most historians settled on the occupant of the great pyramid of Giza, King Khufu. The Great Sphynx is absolutely massive as the towering head (which maybe Khufu) rises to 66 feet, while the feline body is 240 feet long. What’s most astounding, is that it was carved from a single piece of limestone.
Estimates say that it would take 100 workers three years to carve the stone feline from start to finish, and that doesn’t include the coat of paint that use to adorn the exterior. While the Great Sphynx was carved almost 5,000 years ago, it was already decaying 1,000 years later, as efforts to restore the limestone statue began around 1,400 BC, and continue to this day.
One of the most famous pharaohs of ancient Egypt was the child King Tutankhamen. Perhaps the reason why he is so famous is that his tomb was the most untouched of all Egyptian pharaohs (that we know of). When Tutankhamen’s tomb was discovered in 1922, it was full of beautiful workmanship and items that are absolutely priceless (like his favorite board game).
The reason why his tomb is so highly regarded is that so many other pharaohs had their tombs raided by robbers. One of the reasons King Tut’s tomb was so well preserved is because it was so hard to find. British archaeologist Howard Carter, who discovered the tomb, nearly skipped searching for it after stumbling upon a promising lead. And his discovery wasn’t the last mystery in King Tut’s tomb.